Penitent sinners, monstrous (m)others: Infanticide in street ballads amidst popular song and reality

Crime is one of the most profitable themes in popular culture, today as well as yesterday. Over time, the formats and media in which crimes have been presented have naturally changed, not to say formally exploded. Today, we read, watch and listen to detective novels and true crime-stories whereas the audience of the 18th and 19th century, by contrast, bought printed ballads in so called skilling prints. Among the common denominators throughout history, is a fascination for true crime. The skilling ballads were often prompted by contemporaneous severe crimes, above all murder of different kinds, that is: misdeeds that were punished with death. Many ballads were printed in conjunction with the execution and were sold the very same day.

Analogous with crime history, the majority of the songs’ perpetrators are male, but about one quarter of them is female. The single most frequent female crime is a misdeed with bearing on social history as well as sexual politics: infanticide. Infanticide is also the only serious crime that has been dominated by female perpetrators throughout history, above all unmarried women of the lower classes.

In this study, Karin Strand examines the relation between the reports of the ballads and the actual events according to evidence and clues in other sources. How do the ballads depict child murderesses and what were the real circumstances? What do the differences tell us? Using court records and other documents that shed light on the real events, Strand investigates case studies of a selection of crimes that have been reported on in street ballads. The studied material consists of skilling prints in the collection of Kungliga biblioteket (National Library of Sweden).

A central aim for the project is to examine what the ballads do not tell us, including the actual variety of crimes disguised behind the label of child murder. As it turns out, infanticide can entail quite different misdeeds with diverse motives, all connected to the life conditions of lower-class women. This variety of crimes is, however, never mentioned in the songs that typically depict the child murderess in the guise of a penitent sinner or a monstrous mother.  This asymmetric relationship between reality and popular reporting raises urgent questions about representation, power and gender.  

The project is financed by Stiftelsen Olle Engkvist Byggmästare.